March 24, 2014

Is buying back disputed artefacts really a solution?

Posted at 6:31 pm in Similar cases

Prompted by the recent articles on China’s attempts to buy back disputed treasures, Kwame Opoku looks at whether or not this approach could ever work for other countries, and the various issues that it raises.

Bronzes looted from the Summer Palace during the Opium Wars

Bronzes looted from the Summer Palace during the Opium Wars

Eurasia Review

China’s Purchase Of Chinese Looted Artifacts: An Example For Other States? – OpEd
March 24, 2014
By Kwame Opoku

‘One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems. The devastation of the Summer Palace was accomplished by the two victors acting jointly. Mixed up in all this is the name of Elgin, which inevitably calls to mind the Parthenon. What was done to the Parthenon was done to the Summer Palace, more thoroughly and better, so that nothing of it should be left. All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewellery. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits. Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England’. — Victor Hugo. (1)

These sculptures of a rat head and a rabbit head were among the objects looted in 1860 when French and British soldiers under the command of Lord Elgin sacked the imperial palace in Beijing. The eighth Lord Elgin was the son of the seventh Lord Elgin, who removed the Parthenon Marbles from Athens. These two sculptures have now been returned to China. (2)

The barbaric Western imperialist (3) attack on the Summer Palace, Beijing, in 1860 resulted in the looting of over 1 million Chinese cultural artifacts by French and British troops, (4) and left a bitter memory of national shame with the Chinese; who have since tried by all means to recover their valuable and historical assets, held mostly in Western museums and other institutions. The British Museum has some 23,000 of these artifacts, including the official seals of the Chinese rulers. The recent purchase by a Chinese tycoon, Huang Nubo, of seven white marble columns for $1.6m from Norway has once again raised questions about Chinese policies and methods of recovery – especially the question of the legitimacy and wisdom of buying your own looted artifact from the looter or his successors. (5)

The Chinese institutions, NGOs and businessmen that have been involved in such purchases don’t appear to officially represent their government’s policy,but the relationship between such bodies and the Chinese government seems to be a close one. Many of the returned artifacts end up in the Poly Art Museum, Beijing, which has as one of its aims, ‘the recovery of Chinese artifacts now abroad.’ (6) The pretenses here are not unlike those evoked when a request is made to the British Government for the return of an artifact from the British Museum that the British Museum is independent of the British Government.

To pursue a policy of purchasing your own looted artifacts is clearly not what was envisaged by United Nations and UNESCO resolutions which request the holders of such artifacts to return them to their countries of origin. (7) Moreover, China may be seen as breaking ranks with the African, Asian, and Latin American States that attended the Cairo Conference in 2010 which requested holding States to return looted artifacts. (8)

A report from China Radio on The Special Fund for Rescuing Lost Cultural Relics from abroad under the China Social-Cultural Development Foundation (2002) states as follows: ‘There are three ways in which the fund can rescue overseas cultural relics. The first way is donation; enterprises or individuals buy relics and then donate them to the government via the fund. The second way is to buy these cultural relics with money accumulated by the fund. This applies to cultural relics that were legally brought by overseas collectors, since before the foundation of the People’s Republic of China; there were no restraints on the export of cultural relics. The third way is to demand the return of cultural relics stolen during the 19th century invasion of China by Western countries. Yet this is by far the most difficult route, and has yet to yield a single successful result’. (9)

Those of us who support the unconditional restitution of looted or stolen cultural objects to their countries of origin can obviously not support the idea or practice of the dispossessed countries buying back their objects from those who are illegally holding them, or who acquired them from the initial looters or their successors. To buy your own looted or stolen artifacts would appear to legitimize the initial and subsequent acquisitions. Holders without legitimate title cannot pass on title in such objects.

China, which has a strong and thriving economy, may be in a position to spend huge sums on recovering cultural artifacts if its large population has no pressing needs, but certainly most African countries cannot afford to follow this path. A website stated the cost of the Ox Head as $78.98 million and the costs of the Tiger Head as $ 35.98 million. (10)

Could Egypt afford to buy back any of its precious treasures in the West such as the Rosetta Stone, assuming the British Museum and the British Government were willing to sell? Could Nigeria afford to buy the thousands of Nigerian artefacts that are abroad? Would Nigeria be in a position to buy the Benin Bronzes and Nok sculptures that are in Britain, the United States and Germany? The British Museum sold Nigeria some Benin Bronzes just before that country gained independence from Britain.(11) Could Mali even dream of recovering through purchase its artifacts – such as the Dogon objects or other which the French looted during the notorious Djibouti-Dakar expedition (1931-1933), and now proudly – shamelessly – display in the Musée du Quai Branly? (12) Would the British Museum at some point propose to sell the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, and at what price?

One only needs to raise these questions to realize that we in Africa cannot even spare a thought for such an expensive procedure for recovering our looted artifacts, back from those who never tire of preaching about respect for the rule of law and human rights but have a lawless and immoral position – or if you prefer, an amoral stance regarding the restitution of cultural objects looted from African countries.

As readers may be aware, there has been in the last 500 years or so a constant massive transfer of wealth from Africa to the West. Are we to support another such transfer by paying those who looted our artifacts the heavy prices that the Western-dominated art market has established? Where then are justice and morality when those who looted our artifacts demand that we pay inflated prices for our artifacts, which they or their predecessors took, looted and stole from us?

Through a scheme of buying one’s looted artifacts, the looters will be doubly rewarded and the dispossessed owners doubly deprived. Besides, buying looted artifacts would stimulate the illicit traffic in antiquities and thus encourage more looting. Not only will buying bring more looted artifacts into the illicit market but it will also reduce the pressure on holders, who may currently be in doubt about the legitimacy of their acquisitions and business.

If African countries were to embark on a scheme of purchasing their looted artifacts, they would probably have to take big loans from Western banks that would be very glad to lend at high interests rates. The West would thus benefit thrice from its initial wrong-doing.

Purchase of your own looted artifacts, in the final analysis, is participation in the illicit trade in antiquities. It comes to crown the multifarious actors in a long chain of illegalities that aim at achieving maximum prices paid by purchasers. Although the moral opprobrium attached to looting may not spread to the dispossessed purchaser to the same extent as to the looter, the purchaser is not completely exempt; for his act is indispensable to successful illicit trade, and functions as an effective stimulant for the illicit traffic in antiquities.

If the Chinese have so many resources to put into a scheme of purchasing their own looted artifacts, they may well consider investing some of the funds in establishing institutions that could co-ordinate at the international level the efforts of various African, Asian and Latin-American States in the recovery of looted artifacts. They will be thus carrying out part of the objectives and promises of the Cairo Conference on the restitution of looted artifacts.

‘We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money…I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.’ — Charles George Gordon. (13)


1. Victor Hugo, on the sack of the summer palace. UNESCO Courier.…Summer…/311A8C3FEBDC5 The letter from Hugo is also reproduced in Bernard Brizay, Le Sac du Palais d’Été, 2003, Editions du Rocher, pp. 520-523.

2. K. Opoku, “Rat and Rabbit Sculptures Returned to China by Owner of Christie’s”,
China Daily USA 02/21/2014.

3.. Brizay writes “ Disons-le tout net, l’expédition de 1860 en Chine est une expédition coloniale – ou plus exactement impérialiste – qui s’inscrit dans le droit fil des entreprises de colonisation impérialistes du XIXe siècle. Son objectif avoué est d’ouvrir, par la force, cet immense pays au commerce occidental. Elle fait suite à la première guerre de l’opium, menée en 1839-1840 par les Anglais, après la saisie et la destruction de 20.000 caisses d’opium par le célèbre commissaire Lin Zexu ». Brizay, op. cit, p. 17.

4. Komlosy Anouska,”Barbaric Destruction or Symbolic Retribution – The Razing of the Yuanmingyuan”

Mary Elizabeth Williams,”Captain Gunter’ “Loot”: Antiquities from China’s Summer Palace continue to sell at auction”. SAFE Jan.31, 2012.

Brizay mentions that the Chinese estimate the number of artefacts looted at the Summer Palace to be at least one million spread in 200 museums in forty-seven countries, including the British Museum, London, and the Musée Guimet, Paris. Brizay, op. cit, p. 445. See also K. Opoku, “Chinese Research Artefacts Looted in Anglo-French Attack on Summer Palace in 1890: Do “Great Museums” Not Keep Records?”

5. Elginism, “China’s buy back of looted artefacts continues”,


7. K. Opoku, “Did Germans Never Hear Directly of Indirectly Nigeria’s Demand for Return of Looted Artefacts?” note 15.

8. K. Opoku, “Reflections on the Cairo Conference: Encouraging Beginning,”


10. Haiyantang – Wikipedia‎

Animal Year Recovered Current Location Cost
Rat Head 2013 Returned by Francois Pinault on June 29, 2013.
Ox Head 2000 Poly Art Museum USD$78.98 million
Tiger Head 2000 Poly Art Museum USD$ 35.98 million
Rabbit Head 2013 Returned by Francois Pinault on June 29, 2013
Dragon Head
Snake Head
Horse Head 2009 Capital Museum USD$8.9million
Goat Head
Monkey Head 2000 Poly Art Museum USD$1.03
Rooster Head
Dog Head
Pig Head 2003 Poly Art Museum USD$0.77
11. Martin Bailey, “British Museum Sold Benin Bronzes” /
BBC News, Benin bronzes sold to Nigeria‎
The Guardian, “British Museum Sold Precious Benin Bronzes “,

12. K. Opoku, “More Dogon in Musée du Quai Branly than in National Museum, Bamako?”
K. Opoku, “Benin to Quai Branly: A Museum for the Arts of the Others or for the Stolen Arts of the Others?”

“Michel Leiris should be thanked for leaving to posterity abundant information on the methods the French used in acquiring cultural objects from Africa. In some parts of his account we have the impression we are reading a novel or a thriller. Were these ethnologists also trained in criminal methods and activities? No doubt in their ethnology studies they took courses in field methods, explaining how to make notes, use questionnaires etc but did they also teach them what to do if the natives refused to surrender their cultural or religious objects? In the case of the Dakar-Djibouti expedition, like in all similar expeditions by Europeans, all the methods of criminals were employed: intimidation, coercion, blackmailing, straightforward stealing and robbing and the carrying of weapons. Religious objects were profaned and disrespectfully taken away, sometimes in the presence of frightened believers unable to prevent sacrilege and sometimes crying at their own powerlessness in the face of sacrilege. An account of these methods is also to be found in an excellent book by Philippe Baqué, Un nouvel or noir : Pillage des oeuvres d’art en Afrique. where the author describes the methods used by ethnologists, art collectors and art dealers to secure cultural objects from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Objects which were too big or heavy were broken into pieces to facilitate transportation. Pressure was used on villages to sell religious objects which were not for sale at ridiculous prices dictated by the French. Is that then a surprise that in many parts of Africa people are afraid of Europeans, after colonial rule had demonstrated the European capacity to use brutal force to achieve its aims?”

One would read with profit Michel Leiris’ book, Afrique Fantôme, (Gallimard, Paris, 1951). Leiris who was a member of the notorious French expedition to Africa, Djibouti-Dakar Expedition(10 January 1931-31 May 1933) under the leadership of Marcel Griaule, gives us detail accounts of the incredible criminal methods the French used in collecting cultural artefacts from the former French colonies.

13. The destruction of the Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan, was such that even the soldiers who took part in the criminal act appeared to have been shocked by their own acts of wanton destruction. as demonstrated by the statement above from the notorious imperialist Gordon who was also known as” Chinese Gordon” and “Gordon of Khartoum.” The orgy of violence and destruction must have been overwhelming. See also the account of the looting and burning by Brizay and also by Erik Ringmar, Liberal Barbarism, The European Destruction of the Palace of the Emperor of China, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
K. Opoku, “Is it not time to fulfil Victor Hugo’s wish? Comments on Chinese Claim to Looted Chinese Artefacts on Sale at Christie’s”,

See also Greg M.Thomas, “The Looting of Yuanming and the Translation of Chinese Art in Europe”,…/93-the-looting-of-y

www.whatsonningbo.comrom China Daily USA,


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  1. zbkbz said,

    03.24.14 at 6:43 pm

    RT @elginism: Blog post: Is buying back disputed artefacts (in the way China has been doing) really a solution?

  2. Deirdre2_borgia said,

    03.24.14 at 6:58 pm

    RT @elginism: Blog post: Is buying back disputed artefacts (in the way China has been doing) really a solution?

  3. AQArtQuotient said,

    03.25.14 at 9:50 am


  4. OpenAccessArch said,

    03.27.14 at 8:10 pm

    Is buying back disputed artefacts really a solution?

  5. remersereau said,

    03.27.14 at 8:26 pm

    RT @OpenAccessArch: Is buying back disputed artefacts really a solution?

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